Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Crown Prince Sultan receive U.S. defense secretary, discuss situation in Mideast region

Israel’s plans to build more settlements in Jerusalem, occupied lands widely condemned

Abbas, Biden, Mitchell exchange views over negotiations

Erekat says Abu Mazen awaits deterrent U.S. measures against Israel

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, received at his ranch here this evening the visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the accompanying delegation.

The minister conveyed to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques the greetings and appreciation of President Barack Obama of the United States of America and in turn, the King extended his greetings to the U.S. President.

The audience was attended by Prince Miqren bin Abdulaziz, Chief of General Intelligence; Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation and Inspector General for Military Affairs; Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud, Minister of Education; Prince Major General Khalid bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Commander of Land Forces; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz; Prince Saud bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud; Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Advisor to the King; Prince Mansour bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz, Advisor to the King; Prince Dr. Bandar bin Salman bin Mohammed Al Saud, Advisor to the King; Prince Pilot Lt. Col. Turki bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz; Prince Salman bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Assistant Secretary General of National Security Council for Intelligence and Security Affairs; Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Saudi Ambassador to the United States, and a number of senior officials.

King Abdullah then held at his ranch a meeting with Secretary Gates.

During the meeting, overall events and developments in the region as well as prospects for cooperation between the two countries were discussed.

The meeting was attended by Prince Miqren bin Abdulaziz, Chief of General Intelligence; Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation and Inspector General for Military Affairs; Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud, Minister of Education; Prince Major General Khalid bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Commander of Land Forces; Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Advisor to the King and Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Saudi Ambassador to the United States of America.

It was also attended by James Smith, U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom and members of the delegation accompanying the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Premier, Minister of Defense and Aviation and Inspector General, also received Secretary Gates and his accompanying delegation at his ranch in Al-Boaybat.

During the audience, they reviewed aspects of cooperation between their two countries and ways of enhancing them in addition to the latest developments at the regional and international arenas and their respective points of view toward them.

The audience was attended by Prince Khalid bin Sultan, Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation and Inspector General for Military Affairs; a number of senior civil and military officials from both sides, and U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom, James B. Smith.

Gates raised the possibility Wednesday that some of the U.S. forces involved in the Afghanistan surge could leave the country before President Barack Obama's announced July 2011 date to begin withdrawal.

Without giving specifics, Gates said, "It would have to be conditions-based."

Gates made the remarks during a visit to a dust-blown training ground in Kabul province where Afghan soldiers come for weeks of training under U.S. and British instruction. British Brigadier Simon Levey told Gates that if NATO countries contribute more trainers, the project to expand the Afghan army will keep pace.

In a press conference with Gates, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said his country is ashamed to have foreigners assuming its defense, and eager to take over the job.

He referred repeatedly to the goal of some handover of responsibility by the fall of next year. The goal is to expand the Afghan National Army to 171,000 by then, and the police force to 134,000.

"I hope by that time we will be able to have the responsibility for the physical security of the country in different regions," Wardak said. "That process will continue as we go further and the numbers increase and our capabilities increase."

Gates said, "We will begin that transition no later than July of 2011, but the pace will depend also on conditions on the ground."

Still, the Pentagon chief said, "We should not be too impatient."

Gates watched as Afghan troops dealt with a simulated roadside bomb explosion. He stood on an embankment above the road as Afghan soldiers leapt out of a convoy, tended to casualties and contained the explosive.

He said he was very impressed by what he saw.

"Although attention may be focused on operations in the south today, the training that is going on at this facility for the long term is even more important," he said. "At the end of the day, only Afghans will be able to provide long-term security for Afghanistan."

U.S. forces are engaged in a major offensive against Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan. Gates visited some of those troops Tuesday.

Reporters also asked Gates about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday.

"It's certainly fodder for all the conspiratorialists," he said. "We think Afghanistan should have good relations with all of its neighbors, but we also want all of Afghanistan's neighbors to play an upfront game in dealing with the government of Afghanistan."

Gates has accused Tehran of "playing a double game" in Afghanistan by trying to woo the Afghan government while undermining U.S. and NATO efforts by helping the Taliban.

In a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad responded that it was the United States that was playing a "double game."

"They themselves created terrorists and now they're saying that they are fighting terrorists," Ahmadinejad said.

"Your country is located on the other side of the world, so what are you doing here?" he asked.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Joe Biden has condemned an Israeli plan to build hundreds of homes in disputed east Jerusalem on Tuesday - a disagreement that tarnished a high-profile visit that had been aimed at repairing ties with the Jewish state and kickstarting Mideast peace talks.

Israel's Interior Ministry earlier said it had approved construction of 1600 new apartments, an embarrassing setback for Biden after a day of warm meetings with top Israeli officials.

Although ministry officials said the announcement was procedural and unconnected to the visit, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was blindsided and tried to contain the damage at a late-night dinner with Biden.

Nonetheless, Biden issued a harshly worded statement after the dinner, saying its timing was especially troubling by coming on the eve of a new round of US-mediated peace talks.

"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now," Biden said.

"We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them," he added, warning that "unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations."

Relations between Israel and the Obama administration have been chilly precisely because of the settlement issue, and one of Biden's main goals had been to try to patch up ties.

Biden is the highest-level member of the Obama administration to visit Israel.

The US, like the Palestinians and the rest of the international community, believes that Israeli settlements built on lands claimed by the Palestinians, including east Jerusalem, undermine peace prospects. President Barack Obama has been more outspoken on the issue than his predecessors.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the plans in a statement, saying they undermine "any movement towards a viable peace process."

Netanyahu has rebuffed calls from the White House to halt all settlement activity, agreeing only to a limited freeze that does not include east Jerusalem. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed east Jerusalem.

Israel considers its east Jerusalem neighborhoods to be part of its undivided capital, but the annexation has never been internationally recognized and the neighborhoods are widely seen as settlements.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said the new homes would be built in Ramat Shlomo, an existing neighborhood for ultra-Orthodox Jews. She noted that there is a 60-day appeals period, indicating that the decision could yet be changed.

Netanyahu told Biden he was caught off guard by the ministry's announcement, a top Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While Netanyahu considers east Jerusalem to be part of Israel, he acknowledged the timing of the announcement was poor and said he had no intention of sabotaging Biden's visit. He stressed there are no plans to begin construction anytime soon.

But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the move soured the negotiating climate. The two sides agreed this week to begin indirect negotiations under the mediation of US envoy George Mitchell. Peace efforts have been stalled for 14 months, in large part because of Palestinian anger over settlement activity.

"With such an announcement, how can you build trust? This is destroying our efforts to work with Mr. Mitchell," Erekat said. "It's a really disastrous situation. I hope that this will be an eye-opener for all in the international community."

Biden says a plan by Israel to build 1,600 homes on the occupied Palestinian land in an East Jerusalem (al-Quds) settlement undermines the efforts to kick-start the Middle East peace process.

"Our administration is fully committed to the Palestinian people and to achieving a Palestinian state which is viable and contiguous," he told journalists after talks with acting Palestinian Authority Chief Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday.

The senior American official also leveled harsh criticisms against Tel Aviv over a plan to construct hundreds of new settler homes in annexed East Jerusalem (al-Quds). "It is incumbent on all parties to grow an atmosphere of support for the negotiations and not to complicate them," he noted.

"Yesterday, the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin as well as produce profitable negotiations," Biden pointed out.

Abbas also condemned the Israeli move, saying, "The Israeli undermines trust and deals a severe blow to efforts deployed over the past months to start indirect negotiations."

Israel's green light to the construction of 1,600 homes in disputed East Jerusalem (al-Quds) drew severe criticism from world countries. America's hopes of kick-starting the Middle East peace process suffered a humiliating setback as the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is trying to revive an indirect dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis after a year of acrimony.

Previous efforts at direct talks have fallen short since Tel Aviv declines to meet the Palestinians' crucial requirement — a comprehensive freeze on all settlement activities in the West Bank settlements.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned on Wednesday Israel's announcement that it is building 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

"The Secretary-General condemns the approval of plans for the building of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem by the Israeli Ministry of Interior," Ban's press offices said in a statement.

"He reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law," it said. "Furthermore, he underscores that settlement activity is contrary to Israel's obligations under the Roadmap, and undermines any movement towards a viable peace process."

In previous statements and speeches, the secretary-general has repeatedly called on Israel to stop building new settlements.

The Israeli Interior Ministry on Tuesday said it has approved the construction of 1,600 new housing units in a Jewish neighborhood in a disputed section of Jerusalem. The neighborhood sits in the section of the holy city the Palestinians claim to be the capital of their future state, widely referred to as East Jerusalem.